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What you want from a movie called Need for Speed is right there in the title. You want a flick that swiftly moves you from car chase to car chase — each more impressive in its accelerated virtuosity than the last. You want a simple story upon which you can hang a bit of character development. You want a hero who can gamely stare death in the eye as he pilots 3,000 pounds of screaming metal faster than anyone else. You want to feel the wind in your hair and leave the theater with your ears ringing from the deafening roar of Detroit muscle.
You will get some of that in Need for Speed, DreamWorks and Disney’s adaptation of the Electronics Arts series of games. When Aaron Paul’s Tobey Marshall is behind the wheel — and a crew of stuntmen are wreaking some refreshingly non-CG automotive havoc — director Scott Waugh’s movie is a blast. Some interest in what Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman does next, along with young men drawn to horsepower, could give this a decent enough opening weekend, but it’s not the franchise starter I’m sure everyone involved hoped it would be.
That story, such as it is, follows Marshall, mechanic-savant by day, underground racer-savant by night. He runs the top-flight Marshall Motors garage, which specializes in squeezing every last ounce of speed from the hot rods that apparently litter the sleepy upstate town of Mt. Kisco, NY. He inherited it from his dear old dad, who was apparently not fond of paying bills — and Tobey finds himself deep in debt. Luckily, a fella named Dino (Dominic Cooper) — a local kid who left town to become a professional race car driver and entrepreneur (and stole Tobey’s girl on the way out) — shows up with an offer. Dino is in the possession of an unfinished Ford Mustang that was being designed by legendary car customizer Carroll Shelby. Dino wants Tobey and his crew of grease monkeys to finish the car — worth at least a cool million at auction — and will cut the Marshall Motors crew in for a quarter of the sale price. Of course, because Dino spends the movie twirling his imaginary mustache, you know he’s going to screw Tobey over.
Said screwing comes during a post-sale race, during which Dino runs Tobey’s best friend, Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), off the road to his death — and Dino frames Tobey for the crime. Two years of prison later, Tobey is back and thirsty for revenge. Good thing the plot comes to his rescue: There is an underground race called the DeLeon, organized by a mysterious internet racing evangelist called Monarch (Michael Keaton). Only a select few drivers are invited to race their million-dollar sports cars and the winner gets the pink slips to the losers’ rides. Dino’s business is failing, so he’s entering to keep the ship afloat. Tobey wants to watch Dino explode in an expensive ball of fire. All Tobey needs to do is get from New York to the starting line in San Francisco in a little over a day.
For that he needs his old Marshall Motors crew: Finn (Rami Malek), the expert tuner; Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), who drives the support truck; and Benny (Scott Mescudi, better known as hip hop artist Kid Cudi), who flies a Cessna that never runs out of gas and can spot the police from the sky. Together — along with the firecracker of a British woman, Julia (Imogen Poots), who secures for Tobey that same Mustang dream machine he restored — they Cannonball Run it across the country, dodging the occasional cop and street punk after the bounty Dino put on Tobey’s head. (Why there was more than one attack on the Mustang in 3,000 miles is something else entirely.)
When the opportunity arises for vehicular mayhem, the Need For Speed production delivers it. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut’s camera is always in the perfect place for maximum impact and the cadre of stunt drivers assembled by Waugh whip the assorted sports cars around with expertly choreographed abandon. But you realize, about halfway through the story concocted by George & John Gatins, that there’s not a lot under the hood.
Paul and Poots don’t have the same easy, trapped-in-a-car chemistry as Burt Reynolds and Sally Field did in Smokey and the Bandit. The film doesn’t have the same mythic heft as The Road Warrior, no matter how often Keaton’s Monarch barks from behind his podcast mic that “racing is an art…but racing with passion is high art and I think that’s Tobey Marshall driving the chariot of the gods.” It doesn’t sell Tobey as a preternaturally gifted driver nearly as well as Speed Racer conveyed the brilliance of its titular throttle jockey. And, ultimately, it’s not as much sexy-pulpy fun as the Fast and the Furious franchise, which leaves Need For Speed in the neon-bikini dust.
Aaron Paul is a truly fine actor who is given neither much to do here or any guidance on how to do it. Consequently, he spends the entire movie glowering, summoning his best Charles Bronson hero voice. (Too bad Will Arnett’s Lego-Batman beat him to it.) And Keaton is off in his own movie: He’s never on screen with anyone; it’s just him, a bank of monitors, a mic and an apparently ravenous hunger for all of the scenery in sight. Every now and again you get a glimpse of the live wire that lit up the ‘80s, but more often you just wonder who thought that much rambling was a good idea.
Car movies are always about adolescent indulgence, existing in a world without rules where the hero – and the film around him — can do anything and everything he wants to because he is just that good. He wants the girl? He gets the girl? He wants to ignore every speed limit? Done, no matter how much consequence-free destruction is left in his wake. But Need For Speed is a flat, sexless movie that seems not to understand why people like to sit in the driver’s seat and rev that big engine: Because of the transgressive rumble in your nethers.
Opens: Friday, March 14 (Disney)
Production: DreamWorks Pictures
Cast: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Michael Keaton, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Dakota Johnson
Director: Scott Waugh
Screenwriters: George Gatins, John Gatins
Producers: John Gatins, Patrick O’Brien, Mark Sourian
Executive producers: Stuart Besser, Scott Waugh, Max Leitman, Frank Gibeau, Patrick Soderlund, Tim Moore
Director of photography: Shane Hurlbut
Production designer: Jon Hutman
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Oaul Rubell, Scott Waugh
Music: Nathan Furst
PG-13 rating, 130 minutes
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